When you think of Ray LaMontagne, you tend to hear only his voice. It’s easy to understand why. Deep, raspy, strong, delicate, wavering. All at once. Through much of his musical career, there’s hardly been reason to pair it with a full band rocking or rolling behind it. It’s an instrument in and of itself. Then God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise was released.
There certainly was a lot of expectation being that LaMontagne was releasing an album giving credit to a backing band for the first time. Consisting of guitarist Eric Heywood, bassist Jennifer Condos, drummer Jay Bellerose, keyboardist Patrick Warren and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, the Pariah Dogs boast extraordinary musicians who have backed for the likes of Alison Krauss, Fiona Apple, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
With an immensely talented backing band and a longer artist name to deal with than usual, it seemed logical to expect a bigger sound from Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs. Also, maybe Ray would lighten up a little, start growling over some funky, rockin’ tracks. Maybe he might stray away from his usual sparing instrumentation and replace it with jukebox songs you could play at the bar without wanting to kill yourself after. Maybe he might just surprise us. And for approximately half the album, he kind of does.
Album opener, “Repot Man” sounds like it was made in the 70’s. Now of course, those who have listened to anything LaMontagne has released in the past won’t find this to be all that shocking. The production of his albums and the soulful croon of his distinct vocals has always given the listener the feel of a different time. A time when music was made from the heart in a small room, with other like-minded musicians, filling the recordings with a sound that you just can’t find in music nowadays. “Repot Man” offers a grooving bass line and riffing guitar that works supremely well when matched with LaMontagne’s famous voice. When Ray sings (as only he can), “I’m ’bout to do what your daddy shoulda done, I’m gonna lay you right across my knee,” the sensual mood of the first track hits a fevered pitch.
In order to cool off possible overheating, the second track slows down to a leisurely paced folk triumph, “New York City’s Killing Me.” Just as a grooving bass line works in the first track, the pedal steel of Leisz works in perfect harmony with LaMontagne in the second. The track is possibly the album’s most inviting, offering somewhat lighthearted folk beauty while Ray suggests that people in the city could care less if you die. Oh, the irony. Other highlights include the banjo-led “Old Before Your Time” and the majestically composed title track.
While LaMontagne is to credit for these brilliantly written songs, it’s somewhat peculiar that the other half of the album sounds so similar to previous works of his as a man with only a guitar and a voice.
The prospect of Ray LaMontagne with a full time backing band gave fans endless ideas of how God Willin’ might sound. However, I doubt that many thought that it might sound a lot like when the “Pariah Dogs” wasn’t a part of the band’s primary name. Whether LaMontagne had trouble breaking from his penchant as dreary singer-songwriter, or maybe a halfway fleshed out album was released due to only five days in the studio, one can only hope that next time around he fully commits to the excellency of the Pariah Dogs as band members, not just players. That is, if you’re looking for something different from Ray LaMontagne.